(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in August, 2014. See following post on other millionaire’s wineries.
In Silicon Valley management vernacular, it’s one heck of a stretch goal: Make the best pinot noir in the world. This persnickety grape typically creates apoplexy for wineries striving to bend it to their will but to chip czar T.J. Rodgers, it’s just another task to be researched, planned and executed like designing the programmable circuits his San Jose company, Cypress Semiconductor, has been making since 1982.
To his earlier titles such as “doctor” — he earned a Stanford Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1975 — “founder” and “CEO,” he added “winemaker” as a result of the creation of Clos de la Tech, encompassing his vineyards and winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains that started as landscaping around his Woodside home and turned into a passion. “Once you get to eight figures (of investment), it’s no longer a hobby,” he states in his usual forthright manner.
Like attracting magnets, Rodgers instantly adheres to huge challenges. Reading, doing experiments and looking for new solutions to solve problems are in his DNA. “That’s how I do everything in my life — everything,” emphasizes the muscular blond. “I like studying. I like learning. I like knowledge. Winemaking was a natural for me. The thing I discovered was that wine is an extraordinarily complicated topic.” That makes it all the better.
Rodgers’ wine quest is a story that mirrors his business career and is the stereotypical Silicon Valley script: Smart, driven individual comes to the promised land to make a mark, then deals with adversities and rivals but keeps pushing forward toward the brass ring. In neither case — business or winemaking — has the end chapter yet been written, which just makes the tale more fascinating.
“The bad boy of Silicon Valley”
Thurman John Rodgers is one of the valley’s quintessential tech figures, a self-made multi-millionaire who rarely elicits neutral reactions in the business community. Liberal journalists have called him things like “the bad boy of Silicon Valley” for his outspoken belief in Ayn Randian capitalism and the wrongness of protectionist government policies.
Originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Rodgers inherited his love of science from his mother, Lois Louise Rodgers, who had a masters in radio electronics. Relentless in achieving goals, he played nose guard on both his high school and Dartmouth football teams even though, at five-foot-eight, he was one of the smallest players. Nor did he slow down after arriving at Stanford, inventing and patenting an important semiconductor technology before graduating.
According to an executive who once worked for him, “He’s totally brilliant but I think he’s also somewhere on the spectrum,” meaning the high-functioning autism that typifies the classic valley tech nerd. More likely, Rodgers behaves like many chief executives, who don’t have time or interest in feelings and social chitchat.
Ask Rodgers a question and be prepared for a long, complex, minutely detailed answer — like a science textbook written by Henry James. When it comes to wine, he might dive into topics like tannin management, leaf pulling, a natural sunscreen in grapes called quercitin and countless other viticulture and enology subjects, explaining precisely, in depth and with copious statistics until the question’s answer finally emerges. Given his current body of knowledge, it’s interesting to note that “The only wine I’d had, honest to god, when I got out of Dartmouth when I was 21 was Ripple or Sangria,” Rodgers admits. Later, as a valley up-and-comer, he was reluctantly talked into trying a case of different French wines by a local wine shop.
Like many CEOs, Rodgers makes decisions quickly, then he’s all in. That’s what happened when he first sampled a French red Burgundy in that fateful mixed case. “I fell in love with Burgundy and that became my wine,” he recalls. So when it came time to landscape around the home he had built in Woodside in 1992, he opted for an acre of pinot noir grapes rather than decorative plantings.
Starting his wine obsession
With assistance from a local winery and best-of-breed consultants like Ted Lemon of Littorai, Rodgers’ home vineyard began producing wine in 1996. Only two vintages among the first five were good enough to share; before Clos de la Tech’s first commercial vintage of 2000, Rodgers gave the acceptable vintages away “to my CEO buddies,” he says. Nevertheless, the wine bug had bitten him so deeply that he was ready to expand. “I saw the kind of complexity — I would use the word interdisciplinary requirements — in wine that I saw in electronics. That’s what drew me to it and got me passionate about it,” he explains.
He dove into heavy-reading wine research journals, traveled to France for input and consulted with experts at UC Davis. Says Rodgers: ”I’ve read as many articles on wine and winemaking as I did on electrical engineering before I got my Ph.D.”
However, this isn’t a solo effort. Whippet-slim, blonde, pretty-without-makeup Valeta Massey has been there for the whole ride and is officially the assistant winemaker. His companion of 29 years who he married in 2008, Massey oversees much of the day-to-day work. “My joke is, he’s the wine thinker and I’m the wine doer,” she laughs. “He does all the smart stuff but I execute it really well.”
The pair acquired and had planted a three-and-a-half-acre mountain parcel a hilltop away from famous Ridge Vineyards, naming it Domaine Valeta. Of her namesake vineyard, she says, “It’s a beast. It’s like taming a lion. I used to call it Caber-noir. We’re finally getting a handle on it and it’s starting to become a very special wine.”
Investing more and more
But this vineyard was just a warm-up to the main event. In 2000, they bought a 165-acre plot of land located two miles down a dirt road off Skyline Boulevard, where the 30-acre Domaine Lois Louise vineyard — named for Rodgers’ mother — was planted to the same French pinot noir clones as their other vineyards. With the steepest slopes in California, this land gave Rodgers the kind of colossal challenge he relishes. Here, he would create a winery reflecting his well-researched beliefs about how to make world-class pinot noir.
Placed in the middle of the sprawling vineyard, the winery consists of three adjacent 300-foot-long caves designed with help from a French cave builder that handle, respectively, production, barrel aging and bottling/storage. Stair-stepped into the hill, the caves make possible gravity-flow operations from juice to bottling, thus ensuring gentle treatment of this finicky grape.
But this ambitious project had some stumbles. Months of blasting with dynamite enraged some of the area’s few inhabitants while neighbors also complained about possible erosion and contamination of the water supply. Thus it took several years to get permits and complete the winery. Along the way, there was a construction mishap that caused a large chunk of the vineyard to tumble into one of the caves, so Rodgers and Massey turned this $1 million mistake into “the world’s most expensive skylight,” explains Massey.
However, such setbacks were trivial when compared to Rodgers’ overall objective for Clos de la Tech. Namely, to produce a pinot noir to rival the greatest in the world — the top wine from Burgundy’s magnificent Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Presently selling for as much as $13,500 for a single bottle of the 2011 vintage, this iconic wine is the culmination of a few centuries of greatness. Whether Rodgers’ goal shows inspiration or delusion, Massey has a point when she explains the reason for their winery’s mission: “They’re the best. Who else can be your role model but the best?”
Great, spare-no-expense effort has been invested toward this goal, with Rodgers’ winery having adopted many of the French operation’s vineyard and winemaking practices while loosely copying its packaging, label and style. However, the famous French wine doesn’t include a Cypress silicon chip embedded in the neck of most bottles — a Clos de la Tech hallmark. “Putting the chip on the bottle is really labor intensive, but he loves doing it,” reports Massey.
“Labor intensive” should be the definition of the entire operation. The cold, fog-laden hills where the Domaine Lois Louise vineyard struggles to produce grapes demand ongoing ministrations. Rodgers modified a German tractor so that it could traverse the vineyard’s 35-degree slope — “so damn steep that you can barely walk up and down it,” he says. Running on cables and controlled with a joystick, this invention won an award in Europe for being the most innovative new piece of farm equipment.
Ceaselessly reviewing viticulture literature, Rodgers constantly tries out new vineyard techniques. To protect the flowering vines during cold, wet, windy weather, he borrowed an idea from grape growers in British Columbia, who use strips of plastic wrap all along the rows of vines to minimize the effect of flower-destroying conditions. He had done costly earlier experiments that weren’t as successful, such as an electronically monitored portable plastic greenhouse that would have been prohibitive if fully implemented throughout the large vineyard.
With Clos de la Tech functioning as a laboratory for his inventions, some impressive results have emerged. There’s what Massey calls “the wonder press,” which sets new standards for gentle pressing and has reduced the winery’s press time from half a day to 20 minutes. Rodgers also invented a chip-controlled fermentation system with wireless monitoring. He built and donated a 152-tank, $3.5 million version of this system to UC Davis and also uses it in his own winery.
As part of his ongoing efforts in tannin management, Rodgers has always insisted on foot-crushing the grapes — an arduous task that falls to wetsuit-clad Massey. Thus he is working on an ingenious device that can crush grapes via prosthetic feet. “It will be as close as we can get to human foot stomps,” he explains.
Ongoing wine research
Nothing is too esoteric for him to tackle, such as an aroma recovery project now underway aimed at capturing the droplets of bouquet that are blown out of the liquid during fermentation by carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, “I’m not interested in the commercial wine business,” Rodgers insists. “There’s no money to be made in winemaking equipment. I’d rather run an $800 million chip company.”
With so much passion and investment in Clos de la Tech, the obvious questions involve whether it’s profitable and has reached its lofty goal of making pinot noir for the ages. The profitability question seems beside the point; as a consummate intellectual and challenge-seeker, Rodgers is clearly enjoying every minute of the quest and can afford what is spent along the way. However, Massey — who oversees a 20-person crew and recently hired a wine marketing firm — is sensitive about the topic. “I’d love to make a profit for T.J. because I know how hard he works for the money he brings in to help us lose some in the winery,” she says. “I guess we’re doing (Clos de la Tech) 100 percent out of love.”
As for whether the wine has hit the bullseye yet as measured against Planet Earth’s best, Rodgers demurs. “It’s difficult to measure and it’s certainly arrogant for me to say anything and I won’t,” he comments, but adds, “We always show well (when tasted against) the best pinots in the world.”
Massey — who knows her partner better than anyone — has a different take: “He never thinks we’re there because there’s always something more you can do. That’s a goal and it’s always going to be a goal. He thinks that the moment you rest on your laurels, you’re done.”
The current release of Clos de la Tech encompasses five pinot noirs from the 2009 vintage that cost from $42 to $102 each. They can be tasted and purchased at the Half Moon Bay Wine & Cheese Company (owned by Rodgers) and are also sold at the three Draeger’s Markets on the Peninsula, Robert’s Markets (Woodside and Portola Valley) and Vinocruz in Santa Cruz. To join the wine club, go to http://www.closdelatech.com/article/home